Thursday, November 4, 2010

Breaking Through

One of the most fascinating things for me to watch is humans (particularly myself – I am my own laboratory, after all) exhibiting cognitive behavior. I like being aware of thought, where it emerges from, what its compulsions are, and then watching it as it is turned into choices and decisions and how these thoughts via volition eventually influence our reality. To go a step further, I like being aware of the patterns that I create with frequent thoughts and actions, and lately, have been experimenting with building new healthy patterns and reversing old, unhealthy ones.

It’s interesting how and where you find parallelisms. In Eastern traditions of Yoga and Buddhism, they talk about “samskara”, which are grooves that form in your brain for habitual and repetitive actions and thoughts. In physiology, it is common to hear “muscle memory”, especially in sports, and I’m finding out from experience, also applies to dancing. The more your muscles get accustomed to certain movements, the more natural certain movements feel with time. In neuropsychology, they say that nerves that fire together, wire together. Neurons that are activated in similar regions in your brain associate and the more they do so, the more the pattern (and that region of your brain) is strengthened. Brain parts that get the most activity and stimulation, get more supplies of blood, oxygen and glucose, therefore in a way, reinforcing that part of our brain the more we invest in it.

Here is a caveat: I am no way a scholar in Yoga, Buddhism, or trained in physiology or psychology. Do not take everything I say here as gospel. These are my personal conclusions from what I read about that coincide with observable and replicable phenomena in my own life.

And here is a profound learning for me. A single breakthrough does not equate success. It is not about stopping at the single BIG breakthrough when and if it happens. It takes a lot of work. It involves painful and risky investments. It is about constant and habitual practice until you form those grooves in your brain, until your muscles remember, until the nerves that you want to wire together, finally fire together. You do not light an entire palace with one candle. It’s going to take a multitude of candles to keep a big space lit in the dark.

For an hour every week, I volunteer at a local elementary school. I help out a first grader who is struggling with reading. I instantly knew the kid I'm working with this year will be a challenge. The Little Guy could not read simple words like “Bob”, “will” and “that”. There were days when he would flat out refuse to try anymore. Last Thursday was our first breakthrough. I got a couple books from the library that would not drown him and at the same time appeal to him. He is the second child that I have worked with in the last couple of years and it’s amazing when it happens - the first breakthrough. You work with them for weeks and you don't see any progress. Then from out of nowhere, they just start reading. All of sudden, it’s like a light flicked in their head, and they just know how to sound out syllables and recognize words they have read before. It is an incredible honor to see this child transforming right before my very eyes and knowing that his life is not going to be the same anymore. But I stop myself from doing ten cartwheels because I remind myself that a breakthrough is not a breakthrough if it is not replicable. A series of mini-breakthroughs make The Breakthrough.


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